In 2002, at the age of 28, I was hit head on with my first round of life altering, drop you to your knees, make you question every single aspect of the universe, grief. My husband was dead. He had taken his own life. I was not at our home in Colorado when it happened. I was thousands of miles away in CA. When I answered the phone, I remember one thing: the police officer on the other end of the phone asking if I was alone. When I told him no I was with my mom, he asked me to please get her. “Kate, I regret to inform you that we have found your husband’s body in your garage. He is deceased. I’m sorry but we do need you to come back to Colorado right away.” After hearing my own blood curdling scream and dropping to the floor, there isn’t much I remember about that day. Bits and pieces but not much.
I had lost loved ones before – grandparents, friends far too young, beloved teachers – but this, this was a grief I did not know my soul could bear. It just seemed far too much. Too close. Too messy. Too life-altering. Too unfair.
In the hours, days, and weeks after my husband’s death, I wanted to die too. The physical and emotional pain of grief was so intense that dying didn’t seem so awful. I drank too much. I numbed myself with prescription medication. I didn’t eat. To the outside world, I looked stoic and put together (my parents still, to this day, calls it my Jacqueline Kennedy phase). The acting training from my youth was put to good use – the outside world rarely saw how much I was suffering. But I was suffering. I had no idea how grief could affect your health – in all ways – until I was in the middle of it. And a few months after my husband died, I was in bed crying my eyes out and shaking my fist at the universe when I decided to read a letter my husband had left me. In the moments when my husband was deciding to end his life, he wrote me a letter. It is a beautiful letter. I am so grateful for it. So, on this night where I felt so incredibly alone and through burning hot tears, I read it again, for the millionth time. The words finally hit me: “Katie, I know this is going to be hard. I’m sorry for that, and I didn’t want it this way. But I believe it’s for the best. There is just so much pain. So promise me this. Live. Live your life. Put one foot in front of the other and smile that smile of yours as big as you can. And LOVE. Love with that huge heart of yours and show others what love can do – to even the most broken of people. Please do these things. For me and for you. Because life goes on. It’s as simple as that.”
That was the moment that I knew that my husband’s death would forever be a defining moment in my life. But it would not define me. I had things to say and things to do and this loss of the person I loved with my whole being was not going to destroy me anymore. So, I dried my tears. I brushed my hair (probably for the first time in days). I put on some lipstick, and I got my ass to work.
I found a Survivors After Suicide Loss support group and I drove myself there every week. I stopped flaking on my therapist and met with her every week. I started running. I found an apartment and I moved from Newport Beach to West Hollywood. Sometimes drastic change and new geography is called for. Hours were spent running around Lake Hollywood – the place that gave me salvation 4 times a week. I trained for a marathon. I ran 5. And every single step got me closer to understanding what this awful event would mean for the remainder of my life. I got honest with myself and others. I knew I had a LOT of work ahead of me – in cleaning up the mess my husband left and in cleaning up myself. I told my friends it wasn’t always going to be a pretty sight – watching me heal. My life might shift in a way they didn’t understand. I told friends and family that if they couldn’t handle watching me evolve from this hole, they didn’t have to stay. That I would understand. And some didn’t stay. So there was secondary loss and associated grief. But I was armed and ready. I got through it. Just like my husband asked me to, I put one foot in front of the other. I smiled as big as I could as I worked through the most difficult shit of my life. And I loved as much as I could. Mostly, I learned to love myself.
What I know now is that when grief comes to my doorstep and knocks (and it will in a hundred different forms for the remainder of my life), I will not be afraid to open that door. I will not hide and wish for it to go away. I will greet it. There will be days that I cry until the tears don’t come. There will be days that I scream at the unfairness of it all. And, yes, there will be days where I even feel sorry for myself and wonder “Why ME?!” All of those things are true. But, still, I will dry the tears and screaming, and I will show up for my life. Grief will not break me. Grief will not steal my joy. Grief has only made my heart capable of holding even more love and understanding.
My grief, in all its forms, has been a gift and the greatest teacher of my life. Grief is love that is left behind. Grief is the moment of what could have been. Grief is the missed moment – what your loved one won’t be on Earth to see and feel and taste and hear. Grief is the longing for the hug you can’t ask for and the hand you can’t reach out to. Grief is the empty seat next you. It’s the half of the bed that is now never rumbled or slept in.
But, in all of that – in those tear inducing moments – I know that grief is not the enemy. Grief is my friend. A dear friend, in fact. Once I accepted grief as the greatest teacher I will ever know, I have been able to approach grief – in any form: loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, loss of a career, infertility – in a positive, self-enhancing way instead of a negative one (most of the time – there are days I still get mad as hell and cry hot, angry tear, and that’s ok. We are human after all).
I see grief as a connector – to people, to places, to memories. I refuse to see it as a disconnector. Yes, there are pity parties. But they last moments now, not days. There IS anger. But it is fleeting. There are in tears. And that’s ok. THAT is evidence of healing.
I have learned that the only legacy grief wants to leave is a lesson. On reflection. On self –discovery. On gratitude. On love. So much love. A legacy that a heart ripped open and shattered into a million little pieces can be put together. And when it’s put together more love can be poured in, and then, in turn, shared with others. A heart that has been broken understands that the only way to live fully is to love fully. In every single aspect of your life. A heart that has been broken evolves into a heart that takes very little for granted.
I’ve often said that grief is not something you “get over” (oh how I love to speak to this phrase). Grief becomes integrated into your very being – perhaps even altering who you once were. Grief becomes a part of you. And it can destroy you (and for a time it destroyed me) or it can make you realize that moments are precious. Life is to be lived. That happiness is still all around you. It can teach you to sing. And I choose to sing. Even when it’s off key and I get the lyrics wrong. I choose to sing. Always.
For more about Kate check out her blog! katelyonosher.com